Chinese Fish for Meaning in U.S. Carp Rampage: Adam Minter

Sometimes, Chinese netizens pay more attention to a U.S. news story than Americans do. President Barack Obama’s Feb. 23 decision to allocate $51.5 million to eradicate an invasive species known as the Asian carp is a prime example.

Outside of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins, news of this carp-control strategy barely registered with the U.S. public. But on March 6, it hit China and, like a jazz trio riffing for an hour on just a few notes, microbloggers took to the minor news topic with gusto, using it to explore issues ranging from corrupt civil servants to U.S. sovereign debt. Soon it even had its own hash tag, roughly translated as #Asian Carp on an American Rampage#.

Within a week, netizens posted more than 85,000 tweets, comments on tweets and re-tweets on the carp rampage. By Chinese microblogging standards, that's actually quite modest. More popular topics can easily generate millions of posts. But such a large amount of commentary regarding an essentially American story is significant.

American catfish farmers first imported four species of Asian carp in the 1970s. Known to be voracious eaters, they were set loose in catfish pens with the hope that they’d eat the algae -- which they did. But in the 1980s, floods washed over these contained pens, allowing the carp to enter the Mississippi River where -- for three decades -- they’ve been eating their way up American watersheds, disrupting every ecosystem in their path.

But the worst of this plague may be yet to come: Recently, Asian carp has been caught close to the Great Lakes, causing White House-level concern that the lakes’ delicate ecosystems could be forever altered by these slow-moving bottom feeders. So regional scientists and policymakers are desperately seeking a means of stopping the Asian carp’s American expansion.

To understand why Chinese netizens have taken such an interest in the story, it’s absolutely essential to know that the most popular dinner-table fish in seafood-crazy China is carp, bar none. Thus, news of America’s carp problem doesn’t set off alarm -- it makes Chinese mouths water. Add the fact that Chinese covet wild carp -- an expensive treat compared to cheaper, more common farmed carp -- and poetry ensues.

A Bunch of Beautiful Flowers, the handle of a young microblogger in Shandong Province, summarized the feelings of many when she offered up this wistful tweet on Sina Weibo, China's most popular microblog:

We can eat your carp if you have too much: braised carp in brown sauce, roast carp with scallions … Sweet and sour carp is great and it’s a famous dish in Shandong cuisine, though I haven’t eaten sweet and sour carp in a long time.

The dominant thread in the ongoing discussion is this: The Chinese people, and their voracious appetites, are the solution to America’s carp woes. This can be expressed comically, as Accidental VIP, the handle for a Beijing media executive, tweeted: “Chinese ‘foodies’ must join battle and rescue the Americans! The Obama Administration will reimburse you for eating steamed fish head with chopped peppers.” It can also be expressed simply, as in this enthusiastic tweet from Shanghai : “Eat eat. Eat all of it. Immediately resolved.”

Or it can be expressed cynically. Le Ning, a disk jockey in Hainan Province touched on one of China’s most sensitive and censored subjects -- the gluttonous habits of Chinese bureaucrats -- in his tweet: “Save that $50 million and toss one million civil servants over to America and let them eat fish for two years. Nothing will be left.”

For some Chinese netizens, there’s a much deeper issue at stake. Namely, why do Asian carp thrive in the U.S., but not in China?

Last month, China’s Ministry of Water Resources conceded that 40 percent of the nation’s rivers failed to meet its minimum quality standards. Fish don’t thrive in polluted waters, and those that survive aren’t the ones that you’d want to eat.

A video, widely circulated online, shows an American family riding in a motorboat through a pristine creek that passes carp jumping in and out of the water. A netizen in Henan Province wrote about it: “In China the wild carp are very expensive. But in the United States they jump right into the boat.”

China’s continuing failure to protect its environment, especially compared to U.S. efforts, is the focus of the most cutting tweets. Yu Rongjian, a poet and documentary filmmaker, tweeted a photo of Lake Ontario to make a poignant point:

How could I use the word “lake” when I saw Ontario? As splendid as the sea! You could hold the water in your hands; drink it directly -- how sweet! I told my colleagues that I want to take Lake Ontario to China! But then my colleagues and I felt really bad: Are there any clean lakes or rivers in our country? It’s no surprise why Asian carp reproduce so mightily over there.

Wang Yuezheng, a Sina Weibo user in Sichuan Province, mixed in some black humor to express much the same idea:

I never thought that carp would have an easy time surviving over there. So can this prove that the quality of water in America is great? If Americans transport and pour our water into the Great Lakes, I suspect that all of their fish would then be barren. Rest assured, American people and people of the world, this measure will work.

Still, not every microblogger looks upon the Asian carp rampage as a net failure for China and its environmental regulators. Indeed, the vast majority see it as a failure of American stomachs and -- it must be said -- American business sense. “They should open a cannery,” tweeted a netizen in Guangdong Province. “And export to China.”

Following this line of thinking, at least one microblogger, also based in Sichuan, jokingly viewed the carp revenue as a potential solution to American fiscal imbalances:

If the United States does not eat the carp they can export it to China to pay for their national debt. This kills two birds with one stone: They no longer suffer from fish, and they pay their debts.

In fact, despite a surfeit of negative comparisons between China and the U.S., the Asian carp problem is, above all, an opportunity for Chinese netizens to do what they do best: laugh at misfortune. In this case, of course, the misfortune is America’s, and that’s a welcome relief. A microblogger in Shanghai, using the handle 2012lthy, mused: “Some fish go abroad and a superpower panics. Strong fish.”

(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.